Whoa. Somehow, I think I’ve ended up in the Bizarro Universe. New Scientist reports that the Discovery Institute has a problem with the information for teachers that accompanied the recent Judgment Day documentary.
The teaching package states: “Q: Can you accept evolution and still believe in religion? A: Yes. The common view that evolution is inherently anti-religious is simply false.” According to Casey Luskin, an attorney with the Discovery Institute, this answer favours one religious viewpoint, arguably violating the US constitution. “We’re afraid that teachers might get sued,” he says.
I guess it’s the old double negative. By saying evolution is not anti-religious, the brilliant legal minds at the DI, i.e. Luskin, have determined that religion is actually pro-religion, and therefore teaching science is in violation of the separation of church and state.
So I took a look at PBS’s Briefing Packet for Educators. It says things I actually disagree with, like this:
What does science say about the
nature of religious beliefs?
By definition science cannot address supernatural causes
because its methodology is confined to the natural world.
Therefore science has nothing to say about the nature of
God or about people’s spiritual beliefs. This does not mean
science is anti-religious; rather, it means science simply
cannot engage in this level of explanation.
Science can, however, address supernatural causes that have consequences in the natural world; it’s only inconsequential supernatural processes that would be completely unapproachable. And of course scientists can study the nature of people’s spiritual beliefs — they are based on brains, which are entirely natural agents. And finally, science can be profoundly anti-religious, if the religion in question promotes ideas that can be tested and found fallacious.
We should probably make an important qualifier. Science, as taught in public schools in the US, is bent over backwards to avoid bringing up issues that might raise conflicts with religious beliefs. The undiluted science that ought to question religious assertions is scrupulously left out of our classrooms. The reason that evolution is such a lightning rod for these battles is that certain religions have made anti-evolution an important premise of their beliefs; this has made even the lightest, most delicate mention of the term contentious. This conflict is unavoidable precisely because science has revealed facts that invalidate certain superstitions that are strongly held.
That’s why the PBS statement is wrong. However, Luskin is even more wrong, because what we have here is a strong effort by the schools to avoid challenging religious beliefs as much as is possible, and Luskin is claiming that that is a religion. Nonsense. It is a constraint on the teaching of science imposed by the constitutional separation of church and state in this country. In many ways it is an unfortunate constraint — we fierce atheists might like nothing better than public school classes that forthrightly dismantle the absurd arguments of every worthless religion in the world, but we can’t have that for the same reason we can’t permit the Southern Baptists to use the schools as their pulpit: the law forbids it.
As long as religions promote silly nonsense like creationism, though, which directly contradict the evidence, we’re going to have these sore spots that need to be settled in the courts. It is the height of stupidity, though, to argue as the Discovery Institute does that respecting the limits imposed by the first amendment constitute a religion — do they think that claiming that a) obeying the law is a religion, and that b) the law forbids the state from promoting religion, and therefore c) paradox, is the kind of argument that will cause the Supreme Court to explode like a faulty computer in a bad Star Trek episode? I don’t think so. Our courts seem fairly comfortable with paradoxes, and manage to accommodate them one way or the other. It’s also simply the case that conflicts between science and religion are inevitable, so the state is of necessity going to have to favor religious beliefs that do not demand that their practitioners violate the constitution, for self-preservation’s sake — schools make a reasonable accommodation to general religious beliefs, and cannot be expected to avoid every single issue that might impinge on all possible religious ideas, which would reduce the curriculum to the null set.
I’d say that Luskin is right that teachers will be at risk for getting sued for teaching good science. Not because the science is wrong or shouldn’t be taught or because it is a religion, but because we have lunatics supported by institutions like the DI who will attack teachers for doing their jobs and obeying the law.